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CORRUPTION-SIERRA LEONE: President Challenged on Corruption

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Dec 8 2009 (IPS) - The country’s president has failed to meet his electoral commitment of running a transparent and accountable government, free of tribalism and regionalism, opposition parties say.

President Ernest Bai Koroma's administration has been heavily criticised.   Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

President Ernest Bai Koroma's administration has been heavily criticised. Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

The leader of the country’s main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), John Benjamin, has written an open letter to President Ernest Bai Koroma, and circulated it to foreign diplomats and donor representatives, accusing the president of nepotism and failing to tackle corruption.

The letter is a strong indictment of Koroma, who promised a new break in the politics of Sierra Leone. It has alerted not only the local population grappling with bread-and-butter survival, but also the international donor community to widespread graft and poor governance.

John Caulker, of the rights monitoring group Forum of Conscience, told IPS: “The president or State House must respond to these allegations about governance. They are very serious and bothering.

“This pattern of rewarding one’s family and cronies with lucrative contracts is not peculiar to the Ernest Bai Koroma administration. Past governments have done likewise, but the trend must be stopped if the state is to move forward.”

Koroma campaigned on the ticket of ending corruption, and turning the country’s economic fortunes around. Two years into his presidency the people remain just as poor and deprived, living on less than a dollar a day. Infant and maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world and the country still ranks as the poorest on the United Nations Human Development Index.

Festus Minah, chairperson of the Civil Society Movement of Sierra Leone, said: “We are already seeing a pattern of cronyism and tribalism in the awarding of contracts and jobs. The president must address the concerns raised by the opposition, and put an end to speculations.”

Titled ‘Major Governance and Development Concerns’, Benjamin’s broadside highlighted what he called “key areas of concern” on the running of the state. He spoke about the “improper awarding of contracts” for the supply of electricity to the capital, Freetown, and many other government procurements.

Benjamin even placed Koroma’s avowed commitment to ending corruption under scrutiny, alleging that his family has been involved in contract deals.

Following Koroma’s election victory in 2007, the president announced in his inaugural address there would be an end to corruption. “There will be no sacred cow in my regime. My ministers, my family and no one will be given preferential treatment. Everyone must face the law,” he had said.

This was seen as a new chapter in the fight against graft, and the president soon gave the anti-corruption commission prosecutorial powers, making it significantly autonomous.

In October the president fired his minister of health and sanitation, Sheku Tejan Koroma, after allegations of corruption. He is facing the commission on charges of abuse of office, and graft. Many welcome this, but think the president needs to do more, even if it means exposing his family and friends to the law.

“There is documentary proof that a duty waiver of about one million dollars was granted Harmony Trading Company, operated by your younger brother Sylvanus Koroma. The company’s only qualification (for bagging the duty waiver) is its closeness to the presidency,” Benjamin charged. Imported goods are subject to duty or custom charges, but Harmony Trading was exempted from paying, allegedly because of its CEO’s relationship with the president. Harmony has been importing rice since Koroma’s ascendancy to power in 2007.

The opposition leader also lashed out at the president’s elder sister, Admire Sesay (Nee Koroma), a former civil servant who, since the election of her younger brother, quit her secretarial job to become a government contractor.

“We are concerned that your elder sister keeps bagging huge government contracts, using her influence without competing on public tender,” Benjamin fumed. He cited multiple catering contracts awarded her by the government, and her influence in helping cronies bag contracts.

Other members of the president’s family were also included in allegations. Benjamin’s letter was made public just before the start of a two-day donors’ conference on Sierra Leone held in London. It has triggered a debate that has sent political temperatures to boiling point. The opposition has capitalised on this expose, with neither the president’s office nor officials in government responding.

“The president’s office or the official government spokesperson must shed light on these grave allegations,” commented Steven Jones, political analyst in the capital. “They bother on the issue of governance, probity and accountability, and surely it is in the public interest.”

Koroma attended the London conference with a high-powered government delegation, in the hope of attracting private investors to his country, which ended an 11-year civil war in 2002.

“There can be nothing more damaging to the image of the presidency and the country than these damning allegations made by the opposition leader. This obviously makes potential investors shy away from the country, Jones added.

Supporters of the government say Benjamin’s letter was ill-timed, as it had an adverse impact on the donors’ conference in London.

Economist Ibrahim Sillah opined that the meeting did not attract as many pledges as the Sierra Leonean delegation might have expected.

“Apart from a few pledges to buy shares in local banks, and invest in agriculture, there was little said about industries and infrastructural investment. Investors might have been thinking about the negative signals sent out by the opposition, and how their investment might be a worthless risk,” Sillah said.

Benjamin’s letter also spoke about inflated and untendered contracts to ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party loyalists, and the government’s failure to swiftly deal with cases of corruption.

The dismissal of highly trained and qualified professionals and civil servants who are believed to have opposition sympathies also featured in Benjamin’s letter, and this has been an issue of major public debate here since the elections of 2007.

Benjamin said: “Since you were elected in 2007, more than 200 qualified and competent professionals, particularly those perceived to be sympathisers of the SLPP, especially south-easterners (the SLPP stronghold), have been fired from public service and replaced by your kinsmen, cronies and party supporters, with little regard for their competence, experience and qualification.”

This question of exclusion of perceived opposition supporters from governance has all the more proved to be an obstacle to badly needed national reconciliation. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up immediately after the end of the war, noted in its findings that corruption, marginalisation and regional and ethnic divides were key factors that triggered the war in 1991, and warned that a relapse might well send the impoverished West African state into another round of anarchy and bloodletting.

More than 50 percent of Sierra Leone’s economy comes from donor assistance, and with the war long gone and donor fatigue setting in, the government will need to generate substantial revenue internally. And this would mean fighting corruption and making government transparent and accountable.

A Western diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity: “We are carefully studying the situation, and we do take Mr Benjamin’s allegations very seriously. Sierra Leone is in the process of rebuilding, and it cannot afford to allow corruption to go unchecked. As partners we cannot sit by and allow a reversal of the gains made so far.”

There is pressure on the president and his APC administration to deal with the concerns raised in the opposition letter, and a party insider told IPS the president’s office was considering a public statement on the allegations.

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